Similar to a lot of the uninitiated, I had my preconceptions of what a house exchange involved, who holidayed this way, and the risks associated with this new way of seeing the world. However, having “stalked” the Homelink site for an extended period in advance, we decided to take the plunge in 2016 and see what all the fuss was about. Taking into account the fact that our family includes a daughter whose motto in life is “anything different is wrong”, our first foray into this world hit us like a rush – so this is what we have been missing all along.
Suffice to say, all negative preconceptions have been blown out of the water and the positive ones have been validated and enhanced:
• NO, they will not wreck your house.
• NO, you will not wreck their house … just a few minor breakages (that we replaced. I promise.)
• NO, the neighbours will not complain about the 3 foreign hyenas that have landed into the house next door.
• NO, you don’t have to have your house as clean as a surgical theatre … clean, yes, but not clinically so.
• NO, you will not spend every waking hour away from your home thinking about your home. Being Irish though, you will hope and pray (and check the home weather) that they are having a good time on The Emerald Isle.
• YES, you will be having your lunch al fresco with a glass of the local tipple in your hand.
• YES, you will feel like a native after a short spell in the new environs … highlighted to me by the local French men all saluting me each morning on my cycle. (Come to think of it, I was cycling the man of the house’s bike, in his shoes, wearing his lycra and sporting a beard not too unlike his own at the time…)
• YES, you will fall in love with their dog/cat/hen/fish by the end of the trip.
• YES, you will do it again.
…but you all know this anyway!
In deciding to put finger (singular) to keyboard to reminisce on our exchanges, I went with the old Irish saying “An rud is annamh is iontach” (what’s seldom is wonderful). And our most recent trip in July of 2019 saw us head for the first time to the South of France to the sunny, hot climes of Montpellier, and specifically the lovely village of Clapiers, on its outskirts.
As a very organised person, (“annoying” in child terms and “organise – don’t agonise” in wife terms), I had this exchange arranged almost one year in advance with a lovely couple: retired professors, living in a magnificent villa type house with a pool in the aforementioned village. The pool was a non-negotiable deal maker for the children. Their “red-line” issue. These requests and stipulations highlight the breadth of options that are at your fingertips when organising an exchange. It allows you go outside your normal limitations and experience things, that under the normal course of your life are beyond you, be it for financial, climate or other reasons. Want a sauna in your bedroom, you’ll find just the house somewhere within the HomeLink world to meet your goal. Suffice to say, that in the planning and looking forward stage, the availability of the pool played the leading role. The fact that the pool had an extensive glass covering, would allow us, I was told, to swim even if it rained.
Arriving into Carcassonne airport early in the morning afforded us the luxury of visiting this magnificent walled city before we hit the road for the less than two hour journey to Clapiers. These smaller regional airports highlight the advantages of the “smaller is better” model, allowing ease of entry/exit and generally less of the travel related hassle that is part of the bigger airport system. Our newly acquired exchange wheels – a very nice French Peugeot served its purpose for this voyage and all subsequent trips during our stay. A good navigator is a prerequisite and the aforementioned daughter with the aversion to change, redeems herself here with a finely tuned sense of direction. This allows me to promote her to the front seat at all times – bypassing (somewhat) the inevitable inter-sibling disputes that arise at home or abroad re access to the front seat. For the record, those with younger children will know that these disputes are of a higher frequency and intensity when on foreign soil as a left-hand-drive car confers “driver” status on the child.
As this was our fourth exchange, original entry to our new home for two weeks triggers the almost immediate reaction of “What’s the catch?” / “We’re intruding” / “We can’t be staying in this magnificent property, with these views/amenities…Did I mention the pool?” Not standing on ceremony and without any quarter asked, or given, our offspring (and their parents) are in our togs and straight into the beautifully warm water of the luxurious pool. Many hours later, with wrinkled fingers and toes, we emerge to sit for our first official villa veranda meal, the ambience and joy interrupted only by the occasional bite from a foreign flying body.
Many are the days spent swimming and travelling to various small towns and villages in the hinterland. The only decision being whether to swim in the morning and then go for our spin or vice versa. With a tram available from a nearby village directly into the centre of Montpellier, this was a route we favoured for an early evening sample of the city. Arriving into the central square on the tram, one is immediately hit with a cacophony of sounds and smell that is exhilarating. Every street seems to send us down another beautiful cobblestoned avenue that widens out to a beautiful tree-lined small square with people sitting in cafés and restaurants availing of the balmy evening weather.
Having planned an overnight trip to Barcelona, as the time grew near the excitement rose with the ultimate Holy Grail of the trip being a visit to Camp Nou, the stadium of Barcelona FC and home to the greatest player of all-time – Lionel Messi. Being a lone male in a family of five, one might assume that this trip was executed on my promptings, but no, two of the daughters were the drivers of this particular excursion. A mighty temple of football – and commercialism – a great day was had by all, with the less soccer inclined amongst our group visiting a nearby shopping centre to get their “kicks”.
We like to include, on any trip we go on, a visit to the local church for Mass. It can offer a great insight into the locality you are visiting and emphasises the fact that sometimes things are not that different when you are far from home. This particular trip to Mass one Sunday morning in Clapiers was one to remember. On arrival, on a very hot morning, we noticed that there was a certain air of occasion permeating the atmosphere and this was shortly confirmed when a couple arrived with their little baby. The said baby was adorned in a lovely white robe and our perceptiveness allowed us to deduce that we were now part of a local Christening service. We also deduced that this particular small church was not inundated with tourists on a regular basis, as we became, if not the centre of attention, a close second to the baby. We were introduced to the priest and in our hesitant French, explained where we were from. The priest then referenced us during the ceremony (we know this because every neck capable of turning in the Church, did simultaneously, to smile at us). He may or may not have been saying: “Yes, those people at the back with red faces and sweat-drenched clothes are from Ireland”. But they certainly welcomed us, encouraging us up during the actual Christening ceremony to bless the child and cordially inviting us to attend the reception to be held at their house after the Mass. We politely declined but left with a genuine glad feeling in our hearts to have been made feel so part of a lovely experience, leaving us with magnificent memories.
One early morning as I was having a solitary coffee on the side patio, a French dog (I know this as he displayed a certain air of stylish confidence) that had jumped the side railing came bounding past, with the owner, a lady, following in close pursuit. In her broken English and my shattered French, we discussed how he had broken in, why he had broken in, her apologies for same and how we would reunite owner and pet with as much haste as would be required to put a halt to the ongoing destruction of the vegetable patch. With a lot of mention of “Poulet” during our discussion, I decided that I was being prompted to get chicken, as this was the only thing that would get little Napoleon to heel. As it happens, it was good timing because as recently as the previous night we had a cooked chicken for dinner, with at least half of said bird still resting in the fridge. Delighted with my interpretive/translation powers, I subsequently brought out the remnants of last night’s dinner as an offering to my new friend to use as bait for the hound – only to be met by a quizzical look from her! Further mangled sentences later it transpired I was answering the “How to get him back?” question as she was simultaneously answering the “Why he had come in?” question. Let’s just say, the answer to her question was chicken of the live, clucking and running variety acting as a trigger for his entry rather than the cooked variety acting as the means of him exiting. Laughter fortunately doesn’t need translation!
We had a magnificent trip to Clapiers, Montpellier and the general region, and as always in our experience, a home exchange is a mish-mash of a lot of things that make it great. In examining what makes it great, the reasons are contradictory in their explanation:
• It’s the Simple – straight into a functioning home.
and the Complicated – the language, how to use the telly!
• The Differences – cultural attitudes, food, the pool.
And the Sameness – the welcome, the kindness, the fights for the front seat!
Why not for everyone? We sometimes ask. What valid reason can people give for not wanting to experience a home exchange? I found my favourite city on this trip and visited one of the best stadiums in the world, all while staying in a beautiful house with great exchange partners. During these straightened times of lockdown and sadness for a lot of families, it’s more important than ever for us not to take for granted the wonderful opportunities being with family can bring us and what more wonderful places there will be to see in the world in the not too distant future once international holidays are permitted again.
My crew have already put in their next two destination wish lists: Bora Bora and Hawaii! And why not – there might even be a pool there!
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